29 February 2012

Gooseberry fool

I forgot to put my notebook in my bag this past weekend. This almost never happens. It's ironic because I've been carrying around 'The Golden Notebook' by Doris Lessing for the last week or so - a dense novel about a woman named Anna who writes in different coloured notebooks for different aspects of her life and fears she is going mad. My notebook at present is jungle-coloured and was a Secret Santa gift this Christmas just gone. But I didn't have it with me at the weekend.

So when I wanted to scribble things down, I had to use what was at hand. Which happened to be a green postcard I picked up in the Poetry Library a few weeks ago that has been floating around in my bag ever since. It has a poem on the front called Gooseberries by Edwin Morgan.

what I love about Hank
is his string vest
what I hate about the twins
is their three gloves
what I love about Mabel
is her teeter
what I hate about gooseberries
is their look, feel, smell and taste

My father has a similar view of this particular hairy berry. And he happened to be down In London, along with my mother, at the weekend. This meant that we 'did culture'. Therefore I have interesting things written down at angles in black ballpoint on the back of the postcard.

'The cannibalistic nature of the golden orb-weaver makes it impractical to farm them'. Well, farming cannibalistic spiders would be a bit of a nightmare. This rather poetic phrase is in regard to the bright yellow cape and shawl we saw at the V&A, made from the silk of more than a million spiders. Eighty people in the highlands of  Madagascar collected, harnessed and released wild spiders every day for seven years to produce enough silk. Part of the display was a vast watercolour sketch of the design for the cape surrounded by swirls of hand-written spider-poems and spider-texts that inspired it. I would love to swish that cape...

'This Living Hand (after Keats)'. In one of the corridors of the V&A was a display case that held a simple round medal bearing the words 'this living hand' in beautiful calligraphy. The paint used for these words is touch sensitive - it will fade or grow bolder when handled. A perfect pairing of object and poem.

'Picasso dined with the widowed Lady Keynes in 1950. He asked if she still danced. She said yes, and they danced together on the pavement of Gordon Square'. We went to the Picasso exhibition at Tate Britain, and my favourite part was the Ballet Russes room, with all the sketches of dancers, set designs and vivid ideas for costumes. Picasso created amazing visuals for 'Parade'. I had a bit of an obsession with Diaghilev a while back (still do). I watched documentaries, and read the 'The Bloomsbury Ballerina' by Judith Mackrell - a biography of the Ballet Russes dancer Lydia Lopokova who married Maynard Keynes and lived round the corner from the centre of my London world when I first moved here. Picasso drew her portrait. And, evidently, danced with her on ground that I have frequently skipped over.

'He draws noses like mine'. Large and sloping, one continuous line from top of forehead to tip of nose. Some may call these noses Roman, but I'm going to refer to my facial blight as a Picasso nose from now on.

'Coded portraits of lovers'. Picasso had a much younger mistress by the name of Marie-Thérèse Walker and she became his muse, brightly-coloured and made of curves. He painted her as though she was looking straight out of the paintings whilst also having one side of her heart-shaped face kissing the other, like a secret lover entering her portrait. The accents of her name face each other similarly. I love that the child she had with Picasso was named Maria de la Concepción. Marie-Thérèse hanged herself four years after Picasso's death, yet she was never a model for any of his weeping women portraits. She was always light and bright and happy in his pictures.

'Constable - I have done a good deal of skying'. We had to dash up to the Romantics exhibition. It's a pre-requisite when visiting Tate Britain. I admire Constable for using sky as a verb. Cloud-gazing is for romantics, and he does a pretty good job of pinning them down in paint.

Austen may have created rich novelistic worlds on a little bit of ivory two inches wide, but I think I got quite a lot onto the back of a gooseberry.

15 February 2012

'Find a rhyme and dip my pen in cocoa'

I was reading Rimbaud in the Poetry Library like the biggest nerd ever. I read Illuminations cover to cover in a sitting because of Patti Smith. She goes on and on about her Arthur in Just Kids, a memoir of her time with Robert Mapplethorpe, including the Chelsea Hotel years. She is the coolest woman, even if she occasionally slips into prose the deepest of purples. I don't care because her New York of the seventies still sounds like a dream. And Rimbaud isn't bad either - 'Desperadoes yearn for the storm, drunkenness and wounds'.

Dylan Thomas spent his final days in the Chelsea Hotel. Now he is cast in bronze in the Poetry Library. A man named Hugh Oloff de Wet created this artpiece two years before Dylan's death. Apparently the idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from the poet himself. On inspecting it, he stuck his own fag in the head’s mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it. I love Under Milk Wood more than anything. It’s the bees’ knees. I used to listen to Richard Burton read it to me on long journeys. Is there a thing more stirring and wholly romantic than ‘Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast’? No, there is not. He sings in a Welsh lilt of a little world of familiar and funny characters, who are also ‘whalejuice and moonshine’, and who live all the time in a comfortable bubble where ‘you can hear the love-sick woodpigeons mooning in bed’. Sounds just like outside my window in Northumberland, always at an ungodly hour.

From the Chelsea Hotel to the Poetry Library to the Fitzroy Tavern. I’ve been going to this Sam Smith’s pub for Alpine lager and wheatbeer since I was nineteen. George Orwell and Augustus John used to booze there. And Dylan Thomas of course. He left his manuscript of Under Milk Wood in the basement booths when pissed. Thank God it was retrieved. I met a poet friend of mine in this wood-panelled pub for more than three hours of poetry and pints earlier this week. He had bought me a collection of D.H. Lawrence’s poetry, with poems selected by Tom Paulin who also wrote the introduction. My mother loves Lawrence, having fallen for him in sixth form. My father's not so keen but raves about Paulin, who I always found a fascination on the BBC's Friday Night Review. So sardonic. And I love long-line free verse poetry that I read drunk on the bus home. Which is why this poet had picked it out for me. Lawrence is all about the ‘living plasm’. That’s not a euphemism, more his philosophy for free verse poetry. Of course, being Lawrence, he goes on about the pulsating, carnal self, but it can’t be denied that he gets a person going for some free verse. ‘Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds… Give me nothing fixed, set, static.’ Exactly. And his long-lines can rouse a subtle blush or two.

8 February 2012

The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches - e.e. cummings

On Saturday night, after a long pub evening in Paddington with very old friends, I unwittingly found myself in a perfect set-up for a Radio 4 play.

It was snowing. Flakes falling thick and fast. After a painstakingly slow couple of bus journeys I arrived at Archway at one o'clock in the morning. Forty-five minutes and a 39p packet of Dolly Mixture from a heated newsagents later, the bus that would take me all the way home still hadn't materialised. Fellow bus-shelter dwellers had bought cans of beer to keep them going. The stop had been crowded with chilly travellers when I first got there, but the crowd was rapidly diminishing as people were finding alternative ways back to their beds. By two o'clock we were a foot-stomping cluster, chatting away to stop our teeth chattering. Kevin, an actor, became our ringleader and proposed we tackle the walk home. Most of the stragglers lived in Crouch End, with just me and another girl hailing from Turnpike Lane. We rallied. Kevin bought a bottle of wine and we swigged as we tackled the now deep snow.

There was Louise, an American who worked in interior design and who had been at dinner party. She was wearing high-heeled boots so we had to go slow, staying at her pace and supporting her arm. She offered me her floor to sleep on if I didn't make it all the way back to Turnpike Lane.
There was Russell, also an actor and the more gregarious half of a lovely gay couple. His partner was quiet, cautious, and had luxurious hair.
There was Jess, originally from Hong Kong, who was very smiley and chirpy. The smiles hid her concern that her husband did not know where she was and would be worrying.
There was the nameless girl also headed for Turnpike Lane, who was like Bambi - long-legged and wide-eyed. She was oh so cold, so I lent her my mittens. She kept on walking off into the night, despite not knowing where she was going. Eventually she went so far ahead that we lost her. She had spoken of tea and biscuits and bed. I hope she made it.
And there was Kevin. Kevin of the iPhone map and bottle of wine and beard and booming voice. He had been in commercials in Japan for years and was now back on the London stage. He got me as far as Hornsey Station.

It was like Lord of the Rings. A journey, a fellowship. And London was spotted like a Yayoi Kusama installation. Members of the group dropped off one by one, sometimes exchanging numbers, details entered into phones as first names followed by 'Snow'.

I was the last of the group to get home, living the furthest away. It was three o'clock. I was sober and wholly awake. And soaked through. I hairdryered my body top to toe as my bed-sharer spoke of the night-time video games he'd been playing as he waited for me. I dreamt of the hot baked beans I'd eat on waking.

3 February 2012

The Solace of Objects

Charmed Life is a little exhibition at The Wellcome Collection. I wandered in on one of their Thursday lates. And yes, there is a Montaigne quote to kick things off. It seems that the soul…loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon. Objects help anchor the soul.

There is a great deal of soul-anchorage going on in a calm, cream room of the Wellcome building. Displayed in a glass-topped horseshoe-shaped table are the gathered charms of Edward Lovett. He lived in Croydon in the late 19th/early 20th century, worked at the Bank of Scotland, and was fascinated by all things folkloric - charms, amulets, superstitions. He collected trinkets from all over London, from various origins and traditions, and treasured the objects and their meanings. Although he was himself dismissive of the idea that amulets could work as effective magical objects, he did make his younger son an amulet to wear against the dangers of the front during World War I. Unfortunately I was unable to find out if this protection was successful. Having just read and watched Birdsong I sincerely hope it was. Stephen Wraysford, protagonist and odd husk of a man, survived it and he was forever playing games of chance and carrying packs of cards, even if he did admit he pretty much made it all up.

The collection is a feast of horseshoes, shark’s teeth, a mole in a bag, a sheep’s heart pierced with nails, glass sea horses, coral and all manner of tiny treasures. There is even a lobster claw with a silver Virgin Mary inlaid into the base.
The charms have a very physical relationship to our bodies: the dead weight of a horseshoe above a bed, the pointed end of a belemnite ‘thunderbolt’ will prick fingers, a glass sea horse will snap easily in our hands if mishandled. Dangerous beauty, protection laced with threat. Belemnites were called both thunderbolts and Devil's fingers, so strange and talismanic were these fossils of squid-like sea creatures now extinct.

Each charm holds power and wards off some kind of evil or encourages goodness...
Fabric-covered horseshoes against nightmares.
Tips of rabbit’s tongues against poverty.
Acorn forms against lightning, as oak is home of the Thunder God.
Two acorns strung together as a cure for diarrhoea.
Twig of elder to cure warts.
Peony seeds for epilepsy.
Carved frog bones for fertility.
A witch cake made between the first and sixth of April every year to ward away witches.
Circular stones with holes for tying to a cow to prevent fairies stealing the milk.
Phallic iron door handles to avert the evil eye.
Wives of fisherman kept a dried seahorse on their breasts to facilitate the flow of milk.

And the many tiny shoes made out of all conceivable materials represent the path of life.
I'm very glad my own shoes led me to this cornucopia of charms. The necklace I wear most often is made up of a gold chain gifted to me by a bride when I was ten-year-old bridesmaid, a small and empty gold locket that used to belong to my mother, and an unashamedly faux-gold elephant pendant I received from a lovely quaint French girl who lived with us for many moons a few years ago. My charms. They hold so much weight it's a miracle my neck doesn't break. Miracles, and the fact that I never step on pavement cracks.